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By Andrew Lilico

Lord Ashcroft tells us to "Turn down the volume on Europe or lose the next election".  Matthew d'Ancona condemns the events surrounding the EU referendum debate as "self-harm" and argues that the Conservatives appear not to be ready to be a party of government.  For years, Cameron and Hague have feared the European splits of the 1990s, and sought the quiet life on the question.

I couldn't agree more that we should seek the quiet life and party unity on Europe, and that splits on the question risk making us look out of touch and divorced from the public's concerns, and could lose us the next election!  But where all these worthy men are completely wrong is in their diagnosis of how to achieve the quiet life on Europe.  They fondly and naively imagine that the way to a quiet life on this question would be to do nothing of any substance, even despite point blank assurances that "we won't let matters rest there" post-Lisbon, sustained over many years, despite having voted against the ratification of the past three full Treaties, and despite General Election after General Election in which the Conservative Party promised repatriation of powers.

The way to a quiet life on this question does not run through the leadership setting itself up in opposition to the long-standing and principled public position set out by the party – a position, indeed, that drew many activists to be involved in politics at all and certainly attracted many activists to join the Conservative Party rather than (say) the Lib Dems.


Why were the splits of the 1990s so damaging?  Not because they were the extreme rantings of a tiny vociferous minority, but because the Maastricht rebels reflected the view of the majorty of the Conservative party – a view the leadership had chosen to defy.  Even in the early 1990s the Conservative Party was not all that split on Europe – it's just that the point of cleavage was between its leaders (and, to be fair, a large chunk of those inclined to be loyal to them) and the rest.

It isn't the 80-odd Referendum Rebels that created the split on the EU.  They have simply been consistent with what they promised their selection committees and constituents over many years.  What is creating the split is the leadership's insistence on not pursuing the matter, on indeed "letting matters rest there" and not repatriating any power from the EU.  In particular, it is the leadership's notion that this is a low priority – the kind of thing that didn't need to be a Conservative demand in a Coalition agreement, even the sort of matter that could wait until a second term.

Furthermore, the leadership has set up enormous barriers in the way of any repatriation being achieved earlier.  If repatriation were really an urgent priority of the leadership, it would not have instituted the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, preventing there from being another General Election until 2015.  Instead, if it really believed that it needed an overall majority to deliver repatriation, then it would have sought to have an early General Election and achieve a majority so that the repatriation it wanted could be pursued.

Almost worse is the kind of matter quoted when our leaders talk of repatriation.  They talk of social and employment legislation repatriation, as if that might be a huge achievement.  But what about foreign policy, defence, the common criminal space, the commitment to obey the ECHR, accepting the principle that judgements of the ECJ over-rule Parliament, exposure of civil servants and ministers to malfeasance charges if they obey Parliament but defy Brussels?  They seem to have forgotten what the problem with our relationship with the EU actually is.  The worst example of this in recent days has been the claim that the government "repatriated" British involvement in the Eurozone bailouts, in exchange for agreeing to the major Treaty amendment proposed in October 2010 and still undergoing ratification.  Refusing to participate in an arrangement that the House of Commons scrutiny committee has declared effectively illegal is not repatriating anything.

The way to a quiet life, to party unity on Europe is not to not talk about it, to do nothing of substance.  The way to a quiet life would be for Cameron and Hague to lead the party where it wants to go, to do what I still believe they believe to be right.  We cannot wait for this.  The Eurozone crisis gives us an opportunity to repatriate powers that may not come again.  If we do not repatriate now, we will have zero credibility with our EU allies if we seek to repatriate later.

So, absolutely, Lord Ashcroft.  Absolutely Matthew.  Absolutely David and William.  Let's have the quiet life and a united party.  The way to achieve that quiet life is to repatriate – to repatriate now.

40 comments for: Andrew Lilico: Lord Ashcroft is right about the dangers of a split on Europe but the split will be very big if the leadership defies the Eurosceptic majority

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